Film suggests Toulouse killer was disturbed, not hateful


Four weeks before he murdered seven people in Toulouse, a cheerful Mohammed Merah was filmed laughing and showing off his skiing skills to friends at a popular Alpine resort.

The footage, televised on March 6, formed the opening sequence in a controversial documentary about the 23-year-old, French-born jihadist who murdered three soldiers and four Jews last year in a rampage that shocked the country.

Aired by public broadcaster France 3 ahead of the anniversary of the killings, the 105-minute film, titled “The Merah Affair — The Itinerary of a Killer,” was billed as the definitive investigative work on Merah. More than 2 million viewers tuned in.

But the film also has exposed a rift between those who view Merah's actions as the product of deep anti-Semitic currents among jihadists and others who believe Merah was driven largely by emotional problems stemming from a difficult childhood and possible psychiatric illness.

“Very early on after the killings, we saw an objectionable tendency to view Mohammed Merah as a victim,” Richard Prasquier, the president of the CRIF, France's main Jewish umbrella group, told JTA. “Regrettably, the film amplifies this view.”

Merah was a petty criminal from Toulouse who was jailed for theft in 2007. While in jail, the film reports, he was teased and seen as a buffoon. He tried to commit suicide by hanging himself in his prison cell, according to a prison psychologist.

Merah seemingly took comfort in Islam, growing his beard long and immersing himself in religious texts. Following his release in 2009, he traveled to several Middle Eastern countries, including Pakistan, where he received weapons training at a terrorist encampment.

On March 11, 2012, Merah approached an off-duty French Moroccan paratrooper on a Toulouse street and shot him in the head. Four days later he killed two uniformed soldiers and injured a third at a shopping center in Montauban, about 45 minutes to the north.

Then, on the morning of March 19, Merah arrived at the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse and opened fire, killing Miriam Monsonego, the 8-year-old daughter of the Jewish school's principal, along with Rabbi Jonathan Sandler and his two young sons, Arieh and Gavriel. According to a police officer interviewed in the film, Merah knelt beside one of the children and shot the victim in the head.

In the film, Merah is portrayed as a troubled and aggressive youth, the youngest of five siblings raised by a single mother. At 9 he was placed at a state-run institution for at-risk youths after a social worker determined he wasn't attending school regularly and lacked the necessary support at home. Five year later, a teacher wrote, “He is offensive to girls. Every day we intervene on a fresh aggression, theft, conflict or attack committed by Mohammed, who will not accept the authority.”

Merah's mother, Zoulikha Aziri, who in the film spoke to the French media for the first time, could provide no explanation for her son’s actions, but said he once told her, “There’s a man in my head and he keeps talking to me.”

“Our objective was to understand Mohammed Merah, to study the context in which he grew up,” Jean-Charles Doria, the film's director, said in an interview with the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur. “We found a banal setting: a broken family, absent father, powerless mother, late religious discovery and a disturbed character.”

It is precisely this focus on Merah's psychological profile that critics charge grossly misrepresents not only the nature of Merah's crimes but the essence of jihadist hatred.

The filmmakers declined to include the testimony of Merah's brother, Abdelghani, who last year said Mohammed was “raised to be an anti-Semite because anti-Semitism was part of the atmosphere at home.” Nor did they note the 90 anti-Semitic incidents that occurred in the 10 days following the shootings — part of a 58 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents in France in 2012.

The thought that a French Muslim “could go skiing and then murder soldiers and children is too frightening for France 3,” Veronique Chemla, a Jewish media analyst and investigative journalist, told JTA. “So instead of examining how Merah was ideologically transformed, the film speculates on Merah’s sanity.”

Pierre Besnainou, a former president of the European Jewish Congress and president of the FSJU social and cultural arm of the French Jewish community, said “the film demonstrates a total misconception of the true nature of jihadist indoctrination.” And the CRIF's Prasquier said the Jewish community must fight the tendency to portray Merah in a sympathetic light.

“The shootings were first and foremost part of radical Islam and its dangers,” Prasquier said.

The film's producers did not respond to JTA's request for comment. But in his Le Nouvel Observateur interview, Doria denied that the film portrayed Merah as schizophrenic, merely as “inept at social relations and mostly isolated.” He added that Merah had sought legitimacy from Islamic preachers for actions he already had planned.

“We see clearly in Merah a collection of naive religious sentiments, not real faith or ideology,” Doria said.

The film also devotes many minutes to reviewing the failures of French authorities, who had flagged Merah as a person of interest back in 2010, the year he traveled to the Middle East. It also revealed that after Merah had been identified as a suspect in the murders, he managed to shake off a police detail and slip undetected in and out of his apartment mere hours before a French SWAT team surrounded it and killed him.

While critics praised the film for exposing these failures, Besnainou said they are a red herring.

“The way to beat the Merahs of the world isn’t just more security, it’s education and social mobilization against their ideology,” he said. “This film makes this harder to achieve.”

Gunman dies in hail of bullets as French siege ends


A 23-year-old gunman who said al Qaeda inspired him to kill seven people in France died in a hail of bullets on Thursday as he scrambled out of a ground-floor window during a gunbattle with elite police commandos.

Mohamed Merah, a Frenchman of Algerian origin, died from a gunshot wound to his head at the end of a 30-hour standoff with police at his apartment in southern France and after confessing to killing three soldiers, three Jewish children and a rabbi.

He was firing frantically at police from a Colt 45 pistol as he climbed through his apartment window onto a verandah and toppled to the ground some 5 feet below, in a suburb of the city of Toulouse, according to prosecutors and police.

Two police commandos were injured in the operation – a dramatic climax to a siege which riveted the world after the killings shook France a month before a presidential election.

“At the moment when a video probe was sent into the bathroom, the killer came out of the bathroom, firing with extreme violence,” Interior Minister Claude Gueant told reporters at the scene.

“In the end, Mohamed Merah jumped from the window with his gun in his hand, continuing to fire. He was found dead on the ground.”

Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said Merah had taken refuge in his bathroom, wearing a bullet-proof vest under his traditional black djellaba robe, as elite police blasted his flat through the night with flash grenades.

Police investigators were working to establish whether Merah had worked alone or with accomplices, Molins said, adding that Merah had filmed his three shooting attacks with a camera hung from his body and had indicated that he had posted clips online.

The most disturbing image of the attacks showed him grabbing a young girl at a Jewish school on Monday by the hair and shooting her in the head before escaping on a scooter.

The killings have raised questions about whether there were intelligence failures, what the attacks mean for social cohesion and race relations in France and how the aftermath will affect President Nicolas Sarkozy’s slim chances of re-election.

Sarkozy called Merah’s killings terrorist attacks and announced a crackdown on people following extremist websites.

“From now on, any person who habitually consults websites that advocate terrorism or that call for hate and violence will be punished,” he said in a statement. “France will not tolerate ideological indoctrination on its soil.”

Elite RAID commandos had been in a standoff since the early hours of Wednesday with Merah, periodically firing shots or deploying small explosives until mid-morning on Thursday to try and tire out the gunman so he could be captured.

Surrounded by some 300 police, Merah had been silent and motionless for 12 hours when the commandos opted to go inside.

Initially, he had fired through his front door at police when they swooped on his flat on Wednesday morning, but later he negotiated with police, promising to give himself up and saying he did not want to die.

By late Wednesday evening, he changed tack again, telling negotiators he wanted to die “like a Mujahideen”, weapon in hand, and would not go to prison, Molins said.

“If it’s me (who dies), too bad, I will go to paradise. If it’s you, too bad for you,” Molins quoted Merah as saying.

IF YOU KILL MY BROTHERS

Merah told negotiators he was trained by al Qaeda in Pakistan and killed three soldiers last week and four people at a Jewish school on Monday to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children and because of French army involvement in Afghanistan.

In his video recording of his shooting of the soldiers, Merah cried: “If you kill my brothers, I kill you”, Molins said.

Merah had staked out the first soldier he killed after replying to an advert about a scooter, investigators said on Wednesday, and had identified another soldier and two police officers he wanted to kill.

His use of his mother’s computer to lure his first victim, a French soldier of North African heritage like himself, gave police a vital clue, but not in time to prevent the other killings, even though he had taken the scooter to a mechanic for a respray before the final attack on Monday.

Sarkozy’s handling of the crisis could well impact an election race where for months he has lagged behind Socialist challenger Francois Hollande in opinion polls.

Early on Thursday, the first opinion poll since the school shooting showed Sarkozy two points ahead of Hollande in the first-round vote on April 22, although Hollande still led by eight points for a May 6 runoff.

Three years of economic gloom, and a personal style many see as brash and impulsive, have made Sarkozy highly unpopular in France, but his proven strong hand in a crisis gives him an edge over a rival who has no ministerial experience.

Sarkozy said an inquiry would be launched into whether French prisons were being used to propagate extremism and urged people not to seek revenge for acts he described as terrorism.

Merah has a police record for several minor offenses, some involving violence, and was on the radar of French intelligence, but Gueant has said there was no evidence he had been planning radical murders.

The MEMRI Middle East think tank said he may belong to a French al Qaeda branch called Fursan Al-Izza, ideologically aligned with a movement to Islamic Western states by implementing sharia law, but Gueant said there was no evidence he formally belonged to any fundamentalist group.

Friends spoke of him as an amateur soccer player, not outwardly religious and fond of night clubs.

Merah, who had a weapons cache in his flat that included an Uzi and Kalashnikov assault rifle, boasted to police negotiators that he had brought France to its knees, and that his only regret was not having been able to carry out more killings.

French commandos had detonated three explosions just before midnight on Wednesday, flattening the main door of the building and blowing a hole in the wall, after it became clear Merah did not mean to keep a promise to turn himself in.

They continued to fire shots roughly every hour, and stepped up the pace from dawn with flash grenades.

“These were moves to intimidate the gunman who seems to have changed his mind and does not want to surrender,” said interior ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet.

He was tracked down after a no-holds-barred manhunt in France, during which presidential candidates suspended their campaigning.

Immigration and Islam have been major campaign themes after Sarkozy tried to win over supporters of Le Pen, who accused the government of underestimating the threat from fundamentalism.

Leaders of the Jewish and Muslim communities have called for calm, pointing out the gunman was a lone extremist.

On Thursday, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen accused Sarkozy’s government of surrendering swathes of often impoverished suburban districts to Islamic fanatics, demanding that the last month of pre-election debate put the focus back on failing security.

Additional reporting by Jean Decotte in Toulouse and Daniel Flynn, Geert de Clercq and Alexandria Sage in Paris; Writing by Catherine Bremer; editing by Philippa Fletcher

Toulouse killer visited Israel, other countries in the region


The passport of Toulouse killer Mohammed Merah showed that he visited Israel, Syria, Iraq and Jordan, a French newspaper reported.

Police found Merah’s passport in his apartment following the raid Thursday that led to his death, LeMonde reported. It is believed that he tried to visit the West Bank.

Merah jumped to his death from his apartment window during a police raid on his Toulouse home. He was also shot in his head by police as he jumped firing at the officers.

A man riding a motorbike opened fire Monday outside the Ozar Hatorah school where students were waiting to enter the building at the start of the school day. During the more than 30-hour standoff in his apartment with police, Merah said he was the attacker, according to French officials.

Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, 30, and his two young sons, as well as the 7-year-old daughter of the school’s principal, were killed in the attack. They were buried Wednesday in Jerusalem.

Merah told French police he killed the Jewish students at the Ozar Hatorah school Monday in revenge for Palestinian children killed in Gaza, and had killed three French soldiers for serving in Afghanistan. Police found videos he took of the killings with a camera hung around his neck, according to reports.

Merah, a French national of Algerian origin, had claimed ties to al-Qaida in France and reportedly had been known to French intelligence for many years.

Also Thursday, an extremist group known as the Soldiers of Caliphate claimed responsibility for the shootings in France, calling it a response to Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians, according to Haaretz.

“The jihadists everywhere are keen to avenge every drop of blood unfairly shed in Palestine, Afghanistan and elsewhere in Muslim countries,” said the group in a statement posted on an extremist website, according to the newspaper.